Michael Collins’ advice to aspiring astronauts is to not get discouraged by the extreme demand-supply ratio.
Michael Collins, who passed away on April 28 at age 90, and was the third astronaut of the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, welcomed the involvement of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in space matters. But he did not like the idea of treating the moon as a place to move all the manufacturing to.
“I welcome people like Bezos and Musk getting involved. I know Bezos a little bit, served on a panel with him. A big admirer of him. But I disagree with him when it comes to exploration,” Collins said in an interview with Popular Mechanics in 2019. “He fundamentally says that this Earth of ours...we are doing so many bad things to it that he wants to take manufacturing and move it to the moon. Then, we will have a little garden here where we will be much purer in our endeavours and take care of our planet. I like the concept of a garden, but I don’t want to import my car from the moon.”
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar surface, Collins, 69 miles above in the lunar module (LM), circled the moon 12 times. He fretted over the very real possibility of his colleagues not being able to return to the LM, and of having to return to earth alone with survivor’s guilt. So dangerous was the mission, powered by technology that was slower than an average smartphone, that all three astronauts and their families knew very well they might not survive.
President Richard Nixon had even prepared a statement in the event of a tragedy - "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
Between technical worries, Collins completed his tasks on the LM, preparing for as many as 18 emergency scenarios. He communicated with NASA, had cream of chicken soup out of a tube and hot coffee. When he could relax, Collins snatched sleep or enjoyed the views and the solitude. Whenever the LM looped the other side of the moon, even NASA couldn’t reach him, and Collins could fully appreciate the experience of being all alone in space.
For years, chroniclers portrayed Collins’ LM vigil as a lonely ordeal. But while he had his concerns, loneliness wasn’t one of them, he always maintained. Nor did he feel envious towards his colleagues, who got to step on the moon, because he had accepted his role and knew it was an important one.
“As far as feeling left out or anything, not at all, I felt very much an equal partner with them,” Collins said once. “I like being in the command module by myself, I had my own little way of doing things, I had hot coffee, I took the centre seat out and it was almost like being in a little church.”
Collins’ advice to aspiring astronauts is to not get discouraged by the extreme demand-supply ratio. While only a few get selected for missions, the expertise of the rest will always be in demand in some capacity, he felt.
“The last NASA selection process picked 12 people from over 1800 applicants,” Collins said in 2019. “So, all of these people are so qualified. I’d tell them that even if you are not on a mission to Mars, none of it is wasted time. They are building up a repertoire of education and information that would be very useful right here on this little dinky planet of ours.”